Candidates employ TikTok to spread political message

Election day is less than seven weeks away, evidenced by the spate of political advertisements and mailings being sent out and posted across the country as candidates scramble to get their messages across.

This year, one social media platform is getting special attention in the political sphere, even at the risk of drumming up the scrolling ridicule – and worse.

what you need to know

  • With the midterm election less than seven weeks away, individuals running for political office are increasingly using TikTok to spread their message to younger audiences
  • According to recent data, around 60% of TikTok’s 80 million monthly active users in the United States are between the ages of 16 and 24, and 80% are between the ages of 16 and 34
  • The US Senate race in Pennsylvania between Democrat John Fetterman and Republican Mehmet Oz is just one example of a fight in which candidates hope clicks will result in votes
  • TikTok is Chinese-owned, and former President Donald Trump has tried to shut it down — which is one of the reasons you might not see GOP candidates on TikTok as often as you do Democrats

Enter TikTok, the video sharing app best known for trends, music and dancing. But increasingly, those running for political office are using TikTok to spread their message to younger audiences.

“Most TikTok users are younger, especially when compared to Twitter or Facebook,” Maggie Macdonald, a postdoctoral researcher at the NYU Center for Social Media and Politics, told Spectrum News. “And so it’s a way for politicians to reach these people in a way that they might not otherwise be able to reach.”

According to recent data, around 60% of TikTok’s 80 million monthly active users in the United States are between the ages of 16 and 24, and 80% are between the ages of 16 and 34. This means that a far larger proportion of TikTok users are Gen Z than, for example, on Facebook, where only 23% of active users are between the ages of 13 and 24.

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While some political videos have gone viral, TikTok doesn’t get nearly as many messages from candidates as older social media platforms.

Why? For one thing, putting something compelling on TikTok—shooting a video—takes time and practice; a little editing and adding memes and images. Using trending audios or sounds can also increase views.

“It’s easier to write a 280-character tweet than it is to create a really engaging, dynamic video,” Macdonald observed.

And of course it’s things like dancers that people want to see. That — and a cute kid with corn — has enchanted millions of people, wasted time, or both.

But that hasn’t stopped some politicians from getting in on the fun. The Pennsylvania Senate race, being vacated by Republican Sen. Pat Toomey, is just one example of a fight in which candidates hope clicks will result in votes.

In the US state of Keystone, Republican Dr. Mehmet Oz — a retired cardiothoracic surgeon best known for his decade-long television show, The Dr. Oz Show” – against John Fetterman, the current Lieutenant Governor of Pennsylvania and a longtime civil servant at various levels of government.

Their online back-and-forth has gained notoriety across a variety of platforms, but perhaps the most viral incident involved a resurfaced video Oz posted to his TikTok account in mid-April. At the time, Oz railed against the high price of vegetables, which he wanted to use for “crudité,” a French word for an appetizer plate of vegetables. He also dubbed the store “Wegner’s,” an apparent hybrid of grocery chains Wegmans and Redner’s, in the video, which now has 4.4 million views — one of the most viewed videos shared on the account since Oz’s candidacy announced last November.

In response, Fetterman shared a video mocking Oz’s statements, showing people dressed as broccoli and holding signs that read, “I’m afraid Dr. Oz is gonna dip me in salsa” and “Vegetables for Fetterman.”

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This response video has a fraction of the views on Oz’s original TikTok — 153,000 compared to 4.4 million — though a separate video Fetterman made (which uses trending audio on the platform) poked fun at Oz’s raw comment to make, scored 1.1 million views.

TikTok is home to a growing number of high-profile political figures, some vying for hard-fought Senate seats.

Take, for example, Rep. Tim Ryan, a Democrat running for the Ohio Senate against JD Vance, who has received the backing of former President Donald Trump.

Ryan’s TikTok, while not yet garnering nearly as many likes as Fetterman or Oz has garnered, is full of trending audio mocking Vance’s past criticism of Trump, celebrating Ryan’s time campaigning for Ohioans in Congress and working-class in the praising the entire Buckeye State (to the tune of a remixed version of the Corn Kid’s words).

Vance doesn’t appear to be on TikTok.

Then there’s Rep. Val Demings, a Democrat running against Marco Rubio for the Florida Senate seat. Her TikTok presence — in terms of likes and followers — rivals that of John Fetterman, and she frequently posts videos of campaign events and jabs at Rubio on her account.

Rubio doesn’t have a TikTok account and has targeted Demings for her use of the social media app.

“As Marco Rubio fights back against communist China, Val Demings dances on TikTok,” reads part of a recent campaign ad from his team.

TikTok is Chinese-owned and former President Trump has tried to shut it down — which is one reason you might not see GOP candidates on TikTok as often as you do Democrats.

Still, at least one Republican running for Congress in California said his party should embrace the platform more.

“I’ve noticed that when it goes live, I see a different level of support. There’s a lot of Republicans in there,” Brian Hawkins, a Republican nominee for the House of Representatives, told Spectrum News. “You have to think about it to get a million views and shares. These are like-minded people. So there are a lot of Republicans. I think it’s a missed opportunity.”

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It doesn’t appear that his Democratic rival, Rep. Raul Ruiz, is on TikTok. His campaign office did not respond to a request for comment.

Not only candidates for office are using the newer social media platform to spread their message. TikTok has also become a place for serious issues, including those fighting both for and against abortion rights.

“Roe is on the ballot this year,” Gen-Z For Change’s Sam Shlafstein told Spectrum News. “And I think that’s really a big talking point, because I think since we’ve seen what a lot of medium-term production forecasts look like, the Republicans are really suffering from the fall of Roe.”

Earlier this year, the Democratic National Committee launched its own TikTok account, which it has used to uplift candidates in various state races, raise awareness about voter registration, advance President Joe Biden’s agenda, and more.

However, it remains to be seen whether TikTok views will translate into votes. Anecdotally, that wasn’t the case for one popular candidate on the platform: Ken Russell, who was running for the Democratic nomination for a seat in the Florida House of Representatives, was an early and frequent TikTok user and demonstrated an impressive understanding of trends on the app.

His account has 11.9 million likes, more than Fetterman, Oz, Demings, and Ryan’s pages combined. Despite this, Russell lost the House District 27 Florida area code to Maria Elvira.

So far, there hasn’t been a clear correlation between a contestant’s TikTok presence and their overall performance in their race. In the above two races where the Democrat has a TikTok presence and the Republican doesn’t (i.e. Ohio and Florida), the candidates are in close competition; Data shows Rubio likely has an edge over Demings while Ryan and Vance battle to lead in polls.

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